The Radiant Child: Judy Rifka and her Continuing Spirit-Dance with Postmodernism – by Gregory de la Haba 2017 / by Elie Andersen

In his oft-cited Artforum article, Rene Ricard (1946 – 2014) wrote on the importance of becoming one’s name, on being original, innovative, and by personifying the artist-as-icon role in the public realm. For the last fifty years, Judy Rifka has continued to personify that statement by existing both within the zeitgeist and on the periphery of it—even, at times, falling out of favor from it (it happens when you live a long and fruitful life)—all the while ceaselessly challenging her own modus operandi, her art and art forms that include painting, sculpture, video, performance, and more recently, Facebook and Instagram, those vast new canvases of social media Rifka embraces fully to dialogue with thousands of her adoring fans worldwide. Ricard wrote: “One is at the mercy of the recognition factor and one’s public appearance is absolute….If Andy Warhol can’t be used as an object lesson in how to become iconic then his life has been a waste. We become our name.” And in this very public arena, Rifka, the quintessential archetype of a generation of art giants—many lost to drugs and AIDS—that emerged on New York’s downtown scene in the 1970’s, becomes Rifka the modern-day social media artist who shares, posts and ‘LIKE’s via daily ritualistic performances– and they are performances, executed as if on Ricard’s cue–to boost ‘recognition’. A restless spirit with a Postmodernist, punklike soul, Rifka set forth as artist during the heyday of the Age of Aquarius, the hippie generation in the midst of political chaos, Vietnam, and excitement at every turn. Her pro-action mindset in such an environment allowed Rifka to explore love and art simultaneously, easily, and with Abstract-Expressionism as guide and Flower Power as bar, boundaries in paint and life were pushed to the limits. Exploration became de rigueur of the day and from the moment she first stepped on the New York art scene as full-fledged artist in the early 1970’s, Judy Rifka became her name and would, before long, become The Radiant Child:

“Rifka’s work at the debut of the ‘70s…. her single shapes on plywood are among the most important paintings of the decade. Every painter who saw them at the time recognized their influence.”

Rifka asserts she should have been an sculptor for she was “more interested in developing form than continually relating spatial arrangements to four edges of a canvas.” These early investigations with form and space would become her raison d’être: “I immersed myself in finding out about space. That really captivated me, trying to understand space, how to see it and how to draw through the image… I traveled through the Southwest and lived on a Navajo reservation where I painted. Desert space became a big thing for me, because there I was, trying to understand space in this vast area. Later, I became involved in dance and mixed the idea of movement with space, considering a line as a trajectory of movement. So it became about understanding space on the two-dimensional plane.” Rifka aims to capture line and forms positing in space as well its trajectory in space and its concomitant wake reverberating outward and within the four-walled holding cell —the 4'x4’ plywood panel used most often for these single shape paintings. These simple yet majestic forms are allowed to ‘dance’, she says, on the panel and by way of layering and building-up of handmade paint they slowly and painstakingly emerge as ‘morphing fields’, a body-form that ricochets within and without and builds momentum, a centrifugal-like force that emanates off the picture plane and exists markedly, agelessly, in the face of Postmoderism’s gaze. This movement dictates direction and hence allows the form to dictate design, starts designing itself, and trajects forward. Judy explains it thusly: “It’s a real different look at space. I’m not really going in the direction of other painters in terms of focusing on the surface and the strokes. I’m really rushing past that to what’s going on in the space and how it’s developing with time. That’s why I’ll often have a shape on the canvas that fairly ignores the exterior. That’s why I liked the plywood; it was like a floor for the shapes to dance on. My compositions often move forward more and laterally incidentally, whereas typical compositions think about the way a viewer is going to relate to the exterior rectangle. I’m just leaving it there as a floor and moving forward.”

Rifka’s single shapes blow past Kasmir Malevich’s Constructivist ideas about space by eliminating entirely any referential or emotionally conjured ideas about space. These works retain too that pictorial flatness Clement Geenberg salivated for. The art critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe took note (while also noting how specially unique he found them) in an Artforum article in 1974:

“Judy Rifka’s paintings dominated the show. Rifka’s paintings are flatter than almost any other work that comes to mind, including that of others — Robert Ryman, for example — who are concerned with the material qualification of the painted object. At the same time they suggest a space infinitely deep, and its the scope of this evocation and accommodation of paradox of a subjectively considered material dialectic — which leads me to say that Rifka’s is the most devastatingly original formulation of painting’s identity that I’ve encountered in some time.”

Fast-forward 40 years for a perfect example of historical curation not paying attention, not recognizing, their 70’s darling: In a February 2007, New York Times review of High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975, Roberta Smith writes of the ‘brave if deficient show’: “In other instances the selected works are minor, as derivative now as they were then. Or the ideas are so literal or reduced that the artists couldn’t go anywhere with them. Some inclusions seem almost ludicrous, given certain rather obvious absences… of Judy Rifka, Bill Jensen or Gary Stephan, whose efforts… were among the most closely watched developments of the early ’70s.”

How wonderful and apropos for Roberta Smith to point out Judy Rifka’s absence from this historical survey. Closer inspection, however, more telling: Rifka’s ex-husband, the artist David Reed – currently showing at Gagosian in New York – proposed that show and was–along with Independent Curators International–behind organizing it. The zeitgeist only human after-all. Slight aside, life goes on and Ms. Rifka, formerly Ms. Tenenbaum, modeled in 1968 for Alfred Leslie’s iconic painting, Pregnant Tenenbaum, created while the young Rifka was carrying David Reed’s son (novelist John Reed) and a student at NewYork Studio School, keeps pushing, keeps moving along. The mid-sixties found Rifka in London living for a month with folksinger Donovan as he was composing “Season of the Witch” and Hunter College beckoned too where she studied with Ron Gorchov whom she’d meet-up again for two years in the 70’s–this time out-of-school–as he was working his ambidextrous saddle paintings and she her single shapes on plywood. Rifka’s movement remains constantly in flux and all the little anecdotes of past times and place important and relevant to the bigger picture–to the layering and building of Rifka’s spirit—and how she carried that spirit with her wherever she went—in every decade—whether it was to Danceteria from ‘79-’86 to showcase her early video work or to Dubai last September for her Retroactive exhibition at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, Rifka brings it. Just like she brought it to Tompkins Square Park to have long talks with artist David Wojnarowicz or to Fun Gallery to share (in person) with friend Patti Astor whom she painted in a work titled “Constructivist Nightlife” that Ricard declared: “The Modernist stylizations had come to life.” She brought it to the fourth floor of the notorious Mudd Club where Keith Haring curated and hung her paintings side-by-side with his and where Ricard first saw Rifka’s works and he recognized their importance immediately just as he was the first to recognize Jean-Michel Basquiat and write about him critically for the first time in the very same article The Radiant Child cited above. Yes! That article was as much about SAMO as it was about Haring and Ahearns and Van Gogh and the one and only, Judy Rifka. If the German philosopher Georg Hegel were around today, he’d proclaim affirmatively that Rifka is beyond doubt the absolute geist ihrer zeit (spirit of her time). With emphasis, of course, on the ihrer. And the best part? Her time is now. —Gregory de la Haba


Judy Rifka’s career spans over 50 one-person shows and countless exhibitions; her work can be seen in numerous museums and foundations throughout the United States and Europe and has been featured at the following: 1983 Whitney Biennial, 1975 Whitney Biennial; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Documenta VII, Kassel; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Carnegie Mellon University; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; The Brooklyn Museum; The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield; Moderner Kunst, Vienna; Laforet Museum, Tokyo; Kansas City Art Institute; The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers; Kunst Rai, Amsterdam; Mint Museum, Charlotte; Bass Museum of Art, Miami; The Museum of Fine Art, Boston.